Thursday, April 03, 2008

Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Macchu Pichu

Cusco, the city from which you must embark to get to Macchu Pichu, is one giant crap fest. As my wife said in the ultimate backhand compliment, “It looks better at night”. We arrived on a Wednesday after taking an early flight from Lima. The first thing you notice is that the entire city seems to be constructed from gray clay bricks. It’s kinda like seeing the colors of the rainbow except the exact opposite.

In Cusco, we took the “city tour”. I put that in quotes because Cusco has a huge tourism industry (wildly varying statistics about how big it is depending on your tour guide) and all of the companies offer the exact same tour. You see some cathedrals, some old Incan buildings, an Incan fort, some crap we skipped because it was freezing ass cold, and last, an overpriced market.

Now, I’m not generally big on tours. I’ve always preferred to explore on my own. Even if you miss a little here and there, you see a little more and what you want to see. That being said, the “city tour” was craptacular because our guide spoke rough, hard to understand English (we took the English language tour for my mother’s sake), it’s long, it’s cold as a brick when you finish up (elevation: 11,000 feet or so), and you end up getting rushed through the interesting stuff so that you can do more. My advice, skip it and/or dress more warmly.

At any rate, the Incan stuff is all very cool and interesting. The Spanish cathedrals, not so much. (Let’s just say, a cathedral every now and then is interesting and all, but not terribly unique.) The tour does make it easier to get to the Incan fort (outside of the city) and two other sites (only one of which we got off the bus and visited), but I’m willing to guess that hiring a taxi is both easy and economical. (I should note – Cusco is about 3 times more expensive than Lima. Never buy anything in Cusco because you can get the exact same product in Lima for a lot less.)

We did eat well in Cusco, however, and I won’t spit on that. I had Lomo Saltado which is a “national dish” (or so they say) of cubed steak sautéed with red onions and tomatoes in a soy based sauce. It’s good although I think it’s lacking something. I actually cooked it last week when I got home and found that it’s easy to make. I spruced up the sauce a bit and I like my improvements although I used lower quality meat. Either way, the food got the thumbs up, again.

The following morning we took the first train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. This is the only way to get to Macchu Picchu from what we were told. There is no road that goes all the way to Aguas Calientes and this is a source of regular protests from cabbies and bus drivers (who block the tracks and things like that). While I agree with their position (the train IS a monopoly), I would be mighty pissed were I to lose out on seeing Macchu Pichu, THE reason for visiting Peru, due to some protest that was only tangentially related to me about a cause which I could literally do nothing about. Fortunately, we were protest free.

The train zig-zags up the hill around Cusco until finally it crosses over it and heads down into a valley. Macchu Picchu is about 3000 feet lower than Cusco (about the same elevation as Bogota) and it takes about 3:45 minutes to go from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. I’ve always been somewhat of a train aficionado. I love the way a train ride reveals the landscape around mountain bends and tunnels. So even if there were other options, I would likely take the train. This part of Peru is very similar to what one would see in Colombia driving through the Andes except the mountain peaks are snow-capped in Peru. That is to say – it’s utterly gorgeous.

The train cuts through the mountain chains and follows along a river most of the way before finally depositing a horde of tourists in Aguas Calientes. This is a small town that only exists because of Macchu Pichu. As soon as you leave the train station (and meet your guide – who I would recommend heartily for visiting Macchu Pichu) you cross through a makeshift craft market and meet your bus. The bus whisks you away up the side of a mountain. It’s a harrowing journey across hard packed dirt roads with dizzying drop-offs. When you near the top, you get your first view of Macchu Pichu, a view which, as my wife said, “looks fake” and “can’t be real”. This, in fact, was the perfect description. Macchu Pichu indeed is almost unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that the Incans could build it just so and it’s unbelievable that it was never found by the Spaniards and destroyed.

The bus drops you off in front of the only hotel “in” Macchu Pichu. It’s something like $1000/night so needless to say, we didn’t stay there. The entrance to the city is just up a flight of stairs and from there, the city stretches out before you. Instead of entering the city directly, however, the path leads up the mountain to (essentially) the end of the Incan Trail where you can overlook the ruins below you. I have not the words to accurately describe the awesome feeling that overcomes you when you behold the city from such a vantage point. Instead, I will say the following. Prior to arriving at the city, I wondered why the Incans would want to build a city atop a mountain given the difficulties involved. It seemed pointless. That question was instantly answered. That whole area is surrounded by the Andes and in the middle are two or three mango shaped “rocks” that look as if they were plunged into the earth by God’s hand. Atop one of those “rocks”, the Incans found a place where they could literally feel closer to God. It is without a doubt the most beautiful and impressive scene I have ever witnessed.

At any rate, eventually we climbed down to the city proper and went about a tour. The heights weren’t terrible although I admit to not being entirely comfortable. Some people, however, just threw caution to the wind. Tourists were walking all about the tiered farming areas one of whom I thought must have had a death wish. Fortunately, there were no incidents. (Although that hasn’t always been the case. A number of people have died in Macchu Pichu and there is a risk to be managed there. As a UNESCO world heritage site and “new wonder of the world” Peru is prohibited from altering the site in any way which means there are no safety ropes of any kind anywhere.)

We left the city feeling replete and hungry. There was more to see but we were tired and hot. Fortunately, the weather was absolutely perfect but it does make for thirsty work climbing about the lost city. For future travelers, I would recommend using lots of sunscreen, carrying water with you, and bringing rain gear (you never know in March/April). Also, disregard any and all information that says you can’t bring X, Y, and Z into the city. It’s all nonsense. Peru should be policing the site more carefully, but the truth is, they’re not. Feel free to bring in your bottled water and walking stick but please, take care not to pollute or damage the site in any way.

We lunched in the very expensive hotel. They have a buffet that is something like $30 per person that our travel agency had booked for us. It was good. I remember the suckling pig and roast beef as the standouts. Not worth $30 a head, but I wasn’t complaining at the time. And that was that. We didn’t return to the city instead opting for Aguas Calientes and rest. We were tired and rain was threatening so it seemed like a good decision. Now, I wish we had had more time. Perhaps someday I shall return.

We ate well in Aguas Calientes. I had Alpaca which is more or less a llama. It was great. It’s like white steak and allegedly has zero cholesterol (I say allegedly because it seems that every tour guide has their list of “facts” which more often than not contradict other tour guides). We also did some shopping and exploring. The next day, just after lunch, we got back on the train and said goodbye to the town and the lost city of the Incans. I, for one, was entirely satisfied with that experience, even if it left me wanting for more.

The conclusion: I have only visited one place in the world (including Europe, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, North America, Colombia) that I would consider a "do not miss in your lifetime" place and that is Macchu Pichu. It's an amazing place for it's geography alone but seeing a basically 100% preserved Incan city is like stepping into the past in a most real and authentic way (minus human sacrifices). If you have the chance, take it. The city (or access to it) won't be there forever.



Blogger David said...

Awesome review. I have been making Pisco Sours lately (made with Peruvian brandy) so Peru has been on my mind lately. I truly envy your vacation. Dave

6:49 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

I enjoyed reading your review - most humorous! We're heading to the land of gray bricks soon, on our way to Macchu Piccu, and now think that we'd best have a plan for our 'free day' in Cusco (maybe we should free up all our days ;-) Do you have any suggestions?

5:03 PM  

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